Prey for the Devil is boring and self-serious therapy session posing as a horror flick.
It’s been a while since Hollywood went truly bugnuts over horror films depicting demonic possession, with half a dozen or so titles clogging marquees every year starting around 2005, when The Exorcism of Emily Rose marked the subgenre’s triumphant return, and declining around the time 2012’s unwatchable The Devil Inside sent it back to Hell. Of course, that’s not to say this vein of films is entirely dead, with both The Unholy and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It courting audiences just last year alone. But there’s something truly special about the old school PG-13 possession flick, the kind where demonic spirits are always courteous enough to watch their language and ensure to inflict harm without too much grotesquerie. For a good while, Lionsgate was the seeming ruler of this sad kingdom, churning out the likes of The Last Exorcism and The Possession in quick succession — anything to snare those disposable teenage dollars. Prey for the Devil marks the studio’s triumphant return to neutered devil antics, but make no mistake: this is undeniably a product of our current times, as director Daniel Stamm — he of the aforementioned Last Exorcism fame — and writer Robert Zappia have crafted a heavy-handed allegory that uses demonic possession as the ultimate trauma response. (Meanwhile, this critic is anxiously awaiting a parody flick where a film reviewer must overcome the trauma resulting from watching too many horror flicks about trauma. Somebody needs to stop the bleeding.)
Jacqueline Byers stars as Sister Ann, a forward-thinking and no-nonsense nun who has taken up residency at the School of Exorcism in Boston, Massachusetts, which isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds despite looking a lot like the Xavier Institute from the X-Men movies. (Note: Surely we can all agree that School Exorcism would be a far better title than the pathetic pun that was settled on, and would easily have added another $20 million in ticket sales to the till.) Sister Ann works as a nurse, caring for those individuals who are undergoing observation for possible demonic possession, but she would much rather be attending the classes that teach exorcism skills, because this is indeed the School of Exorcism. But being that the Catholic Church is reprehensibly old-fashioned in its ways, they do not allow females to learn of such things, although you can all but guarantee that this modern-day #GirlBoss is gonna show those old fuddy-duddies what’s up and absolutely slay when push comes to shove. Ann is so intrigued by this particular field of study because she believes her own mother was possessed by the devil, even though doctors diagnosed her as, “a schizophrenic,” an actual line in this movie where mental illness is equated with evil. Ann’s therapist, Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen), believes that her young charge simply hasn’t confronted the trauma she endured as a child, with Ann giving a look that basically amounts to, “Bitch, please!” in response. In fact, she’s so headstrong that she defies her superiors and even sits in on classes, which comes in handy when she is suddenly being haunted by — wait for it — demons from her past, the likes of which prefer to take up residency in old men and little girls. Before long, Ann is slinging holy water and dodging lethal ceiling fan blades, all in the name of our Lord and Savior. She even tries to enact significant changes to the exorcism program as a whole, insisting that attention should be paid not to the demons, but the person within whom they reside, because the film would have you believe that women are apparently just emotion-driven like that. But how long can Sister Ann avoid the past, especially as it keeps creeping up behind her in darkened hallways? Could it be that certain individuals who are possessed actually invite the dangerous spirits within, so racked they are by feelings of guilt and shame from a past deed or misfortune? Can Sister Ann learn to, “let go?”
Prey for the Devil is a tired-ass therapy session posing as a horror flick, one that would be far easier to endure if it wasn’t so self-serious, which makes sense given the thematics at hand, but robs the proceedings of anything even remotely resembling fun. Truly, the film is boring as hell (pun intended) while also feeling like it was edited within an inch of its life, as it lurches from one set piece to the next, barely filling in the details between. Byers is certainly better here than the material deserves, but she’s still unable to move the needle; Madsen, meanwhile, just needs to fire her agent. It’s only in the film’s final moments that we get a taste of what could have been, with Sister Sassypants encountering a couple of demons during a leisurely cab ride and responding by pulling out a cross like she’s brandishing a gun. Make no mistake, that is the movie audiences want to watch: a School of Exorcism grad student simply traveling the world and kicking ass, dash a camp included. Regardless, the door is left open for a sequel; if it comes to pass, perhaps someone should exorcize that film of Stamm and Zappia’s presence.